by Camille Cunningham –
Westchester County saw its first case of measles this week, after a Monroe College student from New York City visiting the college’s New Rochelle campus was found to be infected. New York City and Westchester County Health Departments worked together to trace the student’s footsteps to stop the possible spread of the highly contagious virus. So far, no further cases have been found in Westchester.
Outbreaks of measles have occurred in clusters throughout the United States since the anti-vaccination movement burst onto the scene roughly a decade ago, largely a result of an unsubstantiated and since-debunked study linking the vaccine to autism. New York City and Rockland County experienced outbreaks of the virus last fall, with 140 confirmed cases in Rockland and 121 in Brooklyn and Queens, leaving local health officials and parents of newborns yet to be immunized on edge.
Babies are typically vaccinated with the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, known as MMR, between 12-15 months old, and given a second dose between 4-6 years old. Together the two doses provide 97% immunity against measles, and if you contract measles while immunized it is generally thought to be not as severe or as contagious. It is not known whether the infected Monroe College student was vaccinated or not. New York State law requires that college students show proof of vaccination, but they can apply for exemption on religious grounds. The Monroe College website states that they follow these guidelines.
Meanwhile, local moms grow concerned. Verity Van Tassel Richards, Tarrytown mother of a four-year-old son and newborn daughter says, “I’m pretty furious about the situation. It’s scary that people are willing to put my baby’s health at risk from this deadly and highly contagious disease.” She goes on to point out the added challenge of having a baby in the winter, “We can’t go for long walks or sit in the grass at the park. We can’t go to some indoor spots in Rockland County because there are so many measles cases there, and now we have to worry about places in Westchester.” Van Tassel Richards, who is a lawyer, points to strong New York laws for helping to keep residents safe. “I’m grateful to live in a state where vaccination exemptions for kids in school are VERY hard to get,” she said. States with more lax opt-out laws have seen even greater rates of reoccurrence of measles and other diseases, prompting lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to rethink compulsory vaccination legislation.
Another Tarrytown mother of a newborn, Sonia Sekhar, agrees that the threat of measles is “terrifying.” She reports her pediatrician stressed the importance of vaccination for anyone around her baby, “especially me,” she said. She also avoids public spaces, “We haven’t taken her to any crowded places or on public transportation.” She was somewhat reassured by her pediatrician’s assertion that breastfeeding provides a boost from the mother’s own immune system. Sekhar, who is a government employee, struck a conciliatory note saying, “I know these seemingly simple things can take on lives of their own, especially given the religious sensitivities involved.”
Westchester County Health Commissioner, Dr. Sherlita Amler, a former pediatrician herself, agreed that breastfeeding does transfer some of the mother’s immune system to the nursing infant, but just how much is unknown. The biggest challenge is what she calls the “bridge” timeframe, the first year of life before vaccination. She emphasized the best thing a new mother can do is to “cocoon” her infant by making sure that everyone around her baby is vaccinated. “Measles is a highly contagious disease. We have cases all around us, in Rockland, New York City, and New Jersey. We’ve been very fortunate not to have any residents in our county become infected.”
Because measles is transferred through the air by an infected person who is coughing, sneezing, or just breathing, Dr. Amler recommends considering the size and ventilation of the space, as well as the health status of the community you will be in. “There are no known active cases in Westchester. If you want to take your baby for a stroll in the Westchester Mall, right now it should be safe to do so,” she explained. She also advises avoiding all people you know who are sick. Measles symptoms can be hard to distinguish from the common cold, especially in winter. It starts with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes, and sore throat. The tell-tale red rash appears on the head 2-5 days later and spreads over the body. It is contagious four days before the rash appears, as well as four days after rash onset.
Dr. Amler recommends a dose of the vaccine for babies as young as six months who must travel on an airplane. That, she says, “will provide some immunity, but the infant will still have to have the standard vaccine dose at 12 months and again when they enter school.”
While thought by some to be just a nuisance, measles can turn deadly. Before the vaccine became available in 1963, 400-500 Americans died from the disease each year, according to the CDC. Measles was virtually eradicated in the U.S. by 2000, but vaccine hesitancy and international travel have brought it back.
On the Westchester County Health Department website, Dr. Amler urges all residents verify their own vaccine status. If you are unsure of your status, a blood test can confirm the presence of antibodies, however this is generally more expensive than just getting a vaccine. Even if an individual has already been sufficiently immunized, an additional vaccine dose will not cause harm. MMR vaccine is available for uninsured or underinsured adults and children, as well as for college students, at county clinics in White Plains and Yonkers. Call (914) 995-5800 for an appointment. To check the latest measles travel notices, go to www.cdc.gov/measles/travelers.html. If you think you have been exposed and have symptoms consistent with measles, contact your healthcare provider, a local clinic, or the Westchester County Health Department at (914) 995-5000.